Culture At Large

Why gardening is thriving in a convenience age

Karen Swallow Prior

It seems all the world is either grumbling or gaga over gardening.

The boom in homegrown food is being hailed in some quarters as the panacea for all that ails modern society. With a new book on the topic, First Lady Michelle Obama is almost as famous for her White House gardening as she is for her leader-of-the-first-world husband.  Even my own less-than-green university is considering an ambitious campus-wide community gardening effort. From other quarters, however, the growing trend is being dismissed as merely the latest luxury of the nouveau landed class.

 As for me and my house, we strive for the middle way.

Gardening is my heritage, going at least as far back as my great grandmother. But only in recent years has my own lifestyle grown amenable to its rigors. We began with an abundant supply of fertilizer - horses. Then I turned my spade on flower gardening and found that perennials and antique roses are fairly forgiving of benign neglect. But the considerable time and care needed to maintain a vegetable garden - soil preparation, well-timed planting schedules, weeding, planning and execution of critter-prevention, more weeding - seemed impossible in a household run according to two school calendars.

It seems all the world is either grumbling or gaga over gardening.

Then the parents moved onto the homestead and a familial garden seemed manageable. So we cleared enough land for a small orchard and two raised beds, added rich horse “dirt,” sat down with the seed catalogs and checkbook and put my mother’s green thumb to work.  

Now, along with the simple pleasures of eating fresh produce plucked from the backyard, we enjoy taking just-picked beet greens - her favorite - to my 97-year-old grandmother in the nursing home and closing the loop of our little eco-system by offering up garden scraps to the hens that, in return, provide eggs so rich they taste like steak.

Yet, understandably, some see the backyard gardening and locavore movement as a mere flash-in-the-pan. It’s certainly true that, barring any apocalypse, we in this country aren’t exactly likely to go back to tilling the ground with hand tools and eating only what is grown within the distance of horse-powered transportation. And for the record, if there’s ever a call for volunteers to return to washing clothes in the creek and knitting socks by hand, you’ll find me running in the opposite direction.

Yet, I can choose - as we all can - to rein in, if only slightly, the mega monster of consumerism and be a bit more in tune with the rhythms and textures of God’s good earth:  taking staycations instead of trips to Disneyland, eating humane meat, doing without a clothes dryer and dishwasher and instead line drying and hand washing, for example. And growing a few fruits and vegetables.

Maybe it’s not the gardening movement that’s the trend, but rather the late modern mindset of convenience at any cost. After all, within the entire range of human civilization, those who have subsisted on canned and microwaveable food are the vast minority. Perhaps the gardening trend is a strong signal that we have reached the end of a short-lived, bigger-faster-newer-and-improved era. While our man-made products and technologies will ever be outdated as soon as the next great thing comes along, in God’s creation we will always find, as Gerard Manley Hopkins observes in his sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” “nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshest deep down things.”

What Do You Think?

  • Do you garden? Why?
  • Is the trend of home vegetable gardens good stewardship or an indulgence?
  • Is there a spiritual cost to convenience?


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